Nuns cleared of murdering thief

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The Independent Online
TWO NUNS were acquitted of murder in Colombia after a judge ruled they acted in self-defence by shooting a chicken-thief who scaled their convent wall a fortnight ago.

Sisters Eva Maria Silva Nova and Luz Adelia Barragan said they took turns firing all six shots from a Smith & Wesson pistol into the darkness after hearing an intruder on 20 July.

"We only meant to frighten him away," they said, weeping, on national television. "During 12 days we have been praying for his soul." Two of the shots hit Severo Mendez, 42, in the head and a hand. His body was found near the chicken-coop at the foot of the wall of the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Miracles, at El Topo monastery, 80 miles north-east of Bogota.

The nuns spent two nights in prison, until the other 23 sisters raised bail. Their lawyer, Gilberto Rondan Gonzales, said: "This trial set a precedent for the speed in which it was resolved."

Pope John Paul II mentioned the nuns' plight in his public prayers last week at the Vatican after Monsignor Augusto Castro Quiroga, archbishop of Tunja, upbraided the pair for breaking their vows of silence and speaking to the press. "It has been like Purgatory," Sister Luz said tearfully. "It was a great suffering. We had no peace but we waited for justice to absolve us."

Mendez was described as a habitual trespasser and a well-known bungling burglar. Mr Rondan Gonzales said the nuns were at risk of rape and feared for their lives.

Months ago, the sisters told a Colombian army officer of many attempted break-ins at the sanctuary, which houses a 16th-century oil painting of the Virgin of Miracles with a gold sceptre and crown. The officer gave his revolver to the Mother Superior and instructed the nuns in firing techniques.

Sister Eva Maria and Sister Luz said they had fired practice rounds, but never succeeded in hitting anything before. The convent is installing alarms and plans to add two feet to the height of the walls.

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